Why Science Says the Average Student Doesn’t Exist

I have a cohort of twelve amazing future educators. Although they each share the same passion for kids and desire to make a difference, each student brings a different personality, skill set, and mindset to the job. No two pre-service teachers are alike and, because of this reality, their future students will benefit from this diversity.

I am convinced that the more each student can teach out of his or her identity, the better it will be for students. True, there are certain practices that work best and certain best practices that benefit all students. However, this human diversity is critical for students. It’s what makes relationships possible and student engagement work. It’s easy to forget this simple truth that teaching is deeply human.

I find it frustrating, then, that my students will each have to pass a series of standardized tests in order to become certified. The massive, transnational corporation of Pearson will decide whether or not my candidates know the content and the pedagogy well enough to work in a classroom. Pre-service teachers first have to pass the multiple choice tests and then follow the rigid guidelines of the edTPA (where they submit lesson plans, videos, commentary, assessments, and reflections) in order to prove that they are fit to be a teacher.

Although the test is supposed to be criterion-referenced and based upon rubrics, their success will be determined by averages. Pearson will use a bell curve to set the cut scores that will determine if they are just high enough above average to become certified classroom teachers.

We take this for granted, but what if “average” is fatally flawed? What if it simply doesn’t work? What if there is no such thing as an average teacher? And what if, in this push to create the “average” teacher, we are pushing away innovators and creative types who might have a different – or even better – way to approach teaching and learning?

The Problem with Average

I recently listened to a podcast from 99% Invisible sharing a story mentioned in The End of Average (a book that pushed my thinking in ways I hadn’t anticipated).

The notion of average is relatively new. It actually emerged, as a concept, in the 1830’s. It started when Adolphe Quetelet, an astronomer and mathematician, used averages to determine the speed of the movement of planets. Quetelet became obsessed with averages and coined the term “the average man.”

As society shifted toward modernization, urbanization, and industrialization, they embraced this idea of average. It helped normalize messy data. It helped identify trends and standardize processes. Our current small, medium, and large clothing sizes are a throwback to this idea that began with the need to create averages in order to standardize military uniforms.

We live in a world obsessed with averages. We speak of average families, average incomes, and average prices. We still use Quetelet’s concept of the “average man” in things like BMI indexes. We tend to take for granted that averages are accurate.

As Todd Rose explains in The End of Average:

“Most of us know intuitively that a score on a personality test, a rank on a standardized assessment, a grade point average, or a rating on a performance review doesn’t reflect your, or your child’s, or your students’, or your employees’ abilities. Yet the concept of average as a yardstick for measuring individuals has been so thoroughly ingrained in our minds that we rarely question it seriously.”

Social science researchers are beginning to discover the flaws in how we use averages to make decisions around design. There’s a great story that illustrates this idea. Back in World War II, the U.S. faced a high mortality rate in their pilots. They assumed it was an issue of training or of a failure to adjust to faster planes. They continued to explore every possible solution based upon the assumption that there was something inherently wrong with the pilots. However, every tweak they made failed to make a dent in this problem.

Eventually, they measured their pilots and concluded that nobody was average. Out of over 4,000 pilots, they couldn’t find a single man who fit the definition of average. In fact, few, if any, of the pilots were even close in measurement to the “average man.” It was an illusion meant to make large, messy data seem simpler. It was a human invention that society had accepted as a scientific and mathematical truth.

This revelation shocked the military. It turned out that the problem wasn’t with the pilots or the aircraft or even the training they had received. The real issue is that they were trying to fit diverse body types into a one-size-fits-all cockpit. They had to find a new approach.

Their solution? Make things adjustable. Make the helmet straps adjustable. Make the pedals adjustable. Make the seats adjustable. Suddenly, the mortality rates plummeted as they embraced this idea of flexible design and quit assuming that people needed to conform to a mythical idea of average.

Averages aren’t useless. However, they are often used to design systems and structures that are applied to all people (which was the case with the pilots). Worse still, people use averages to try to assess the knowledge, skills, and abilities of individuals.

Again, here’s how Todd Rose describes it:

“It is not that the average is never useful. Averages have their place. If you’re comparing two different groups of people, like comparing the performance of Chilean pilots with French pilots—as opposed to comparing two individuals from each of those groups—then the average can be useful. But the moment you need a pilot, or a plumber, or a doctor, the moment you need to teach this child or decide whether to hire that employee—the moment you need to make a decision about any individual—the average is useless.”

This is a critical point for educators. Too often, we take the same one-size-fits-all approach to education that the military used with the cockpits and then we wonder why it’s not working. Is it bad training? Is it a flaw in the content? We aren’t designing flexible systems.

There Is No Average Student

Schools are immersed in a system of averaging. Traditionally, we average out the scores on all assignments in order to produce a grade. We use the bell curve to average out student performance and set a curve. We use standardized tests to judge students, teachers, and entire schools. We use averages to decide who needs intervention. It is a critical part of everything from RTI to PLCs to any other acronym program that’s popular in K-12 education.

But the concept of average is often more subtle. We use averages when we view research; often failing to pay attention to the nuanced differences in context from classroom to classroom. We use this idea of the “average student” when we make curricular decisions. What should the average student know? How long would it take the average student to learn this? How much work should the average student do on this project?

We often view things through the lens of the average student. The problem is none of our students are average. None of them. There is no such thing as an average student — just as there are no average pilots. However, when we aim for average, we find that the instruction isn’t fitting anyone. Take something as simple as timing. You give students 15 minutes for a task. Some kids are moving ahead. Others are behind. In this moment, “average” isn’t working for anyone. Students are bored, angry, frustrated, and disengaged.


Embracing Flexible Design in the Classroom

At first, the military assumed that their pilots were incompetent or poorly trained. However, when they shifted away from fitting the pilots into their design and started adapting their design to fit the individual pilots, everything changed.

I love this concept of flexible design. It’s the idea that you create systems that are adjustable for the user. You could have a short, medium, and tall version of a seat in a car. Or you could make the seat adjustable and let the driver customize it to fit his or her needs. The first idea depends on averaging and differentiating. It is what we do in schools when we group students and then use tracking for differentiation. But this second idea is different. It keeps things flexible and allows the user to make the decision about differentiation.

What if our lessons, projects, units, and assignments were adjustable? What if our rules, procedures, and structures were flexible? What if students felt the permission to modify things on their own?

As we design our classroom systems, it can help to ask, “How can this be more adjustable? What can students do in order to modify this to meet their own needs?”

Here are a few examples:

  • Getting rid of specific numbers on assignments (3 pages, 5 paragraphs, etc.) and shift toward requiring quality work instead
  • Allowing modifications on assignments
  • Creating loosely structured projects where students have more autonomy in what they are creating and how they are making it
  • De-emphasizing standardized test scores and avoiding bell curves or other systems where averages are used to judge students
  • Letting students select which particular strategies that work best for their own learning
  • Changing the pace up so that certain students can finish earlier and have enrichment and others who are behind can have more time to work and not have to feel as though they are constantly “catching up”

This approach can feel nerve-wracking, both for the students and for the teacher. It’s why it can help to move incrementally toward more student choice and flexible design. This approach requires a deep sense of trust from the teacher. It can be hard to say, “Go ahead and modify this to fit your needs.” But it’s worth it when students feel empowered and begin to own their learning in a way that had never been imaginable before.

This is why I love design thinking. It’s a flexible framework that allows students to own the entire process — from awareness through inquiry and into research, ideation, prototyping, and modifying. It’s essentially a shift into flexible design, where students are in the driver’s seat.

If you’re interested in having me give a keynote or workshop on design thinking, student choice, or student engagement, please fill out the form on my speaking page

Listen as a Podcast

This post is also available on my Creative Classroom podcast. If you’re someone who enjoys listening to podcasts on the way to work, this might be a great way to “read” my blog. You can also listen to it below:

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.

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One response

  1. Excellent post! The forced distribution and norm-referenced comparative grading have done a lot of damage, but they persist because they’re easy. Far better to decide what constitutes mastery of a topic or subject and guide each student toward that.


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